Home Opinion/Commentary What the Boeing whistleblower’s death reveals about exposing corporate wrongdoing in North America

What the Boeing whistleblower’s death reveals about exposing corporate wrongdoing in North America

by The Conversation
By Thomas Stuart, University of Victoria and Douglas A. Stuart, University of Victoria

A former Boeing employee who raised concerns about the company’s safety and production standards was found dead on March 9 before he could provide his final deposition in an ongoing lawsuit against Boeing. John Barnett died from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police.

For more than three decades, Barnett worked at Boeing, including as a quality manager at a North Charleston, S.C. plant, which manufactures the 787 Dreamliner. In 2019, Barnett and a dozen other workers blew the whistle on Boeing in a New York Times story, claiming its manufacturing processes prioritized speed over public safety.

While Boeing denied the claims of unsafe work practices, recent audits have confirmed that quality control issues exist. The Federal Aviation Administration released the results of a recent investigation showing numerous non-compliance issues.

Boeing’s planes have recently caught media attention for a series of technical problems. These incidents include a door blowing off a plane soon after takeoff from Portland on Jan. 5, planes making emergency landings due to mechanical issues, and, on March 11, 50 passengers sustaining injuries on a Boeing plane due to a sudden loss of elevation.

The costs of whistleblowing

Barnett’s death sadly appears to fit into an established pattern. Whistleblowers face intense public scrutiny, and, frequently, retaliation after going public. According to a recent study, 82 per cent of whistleblowers face some level of retaliation from their employer after leaking information, including harassment or dismissal.

Aside from retaliation, whistleblowers also frequently lose their sense of community after coming forward.

Corporate work culture makes choosing between duty and loyalty emotionally complicated. For many people, work largely informs their identity. Their workplace is their community and their work ethic often merges personal achievement with professional values. They become emotionally invested in the culture, structure and daily dramas of their workplace.

When whistleblowers go public, they make an overt choice to separate from this community. More to the point, they represent that community — or a portion of it — as unethical or criminal. As such, former colleagues whose identity is wrapped up in their work may feel betrayed by the whistleblower.

Even members of the public may critique whistleblowers as disloyal and attention-seeking. But this is not a fair characterization.

Duty versus loyalty: A false dichotomy

Even after coming forward and facing public attention and resentment, research indicates many whistleblowers continue to define themselves through their work community, relying on it for their sense of identity and belonging.

Many whistleblowers speak out because they are particularly invested in their work community’s ideals and their profession’s standards. This suggests the choice between public duty and professional loyalty is a false dichotomy. For whistleblowers, their duty to the public and their loyalty to their professional standards are one and the same.

For Barnett, this seems to have been particularly true; his public duty and professional loyalty were not at odds. Seeking to protect the public, Barnett demonstrated a commitment to a better future for his colleagues and the firm he worked at for 32 years.

In the wake of Barnett’s passing, his lawyers said:

“John was a brave, honest man of the highest integrity. He cared dearly about his family, his friends, the Boeing company, his Boeing co-workers, and the pilots and people who flew on Boeing aircraft. We have rarely met someone with a more sincere and forthright character.”

Whistleblowers in the public eye

As public figures, whistleblowers not only face retaliation from their employers, but also ire from the public. They often find themselves caught in a tangled web of cultural, social and professional values.

Public discussion pits duty against loyalty, presenting whistleblowers as martyrs or snitches. Many see whistleblowers as “tattle tales” or “rats” that betray their employers to seek status, financial reward or validation.

A recent whistleblower award in the United States saw an anonymous informant receive US$279 million dollars — the largest award ever granted by the Securities and Exchange Commission. This fell under the Dodd-Frank Act, which guarantees would-be whistleblowers a bounty equalling 10 to 30 per cent of monetary sanctions collected.

The policy provides an incentive for whistleblowers to speak up, as well as confidentiality protection for vulnerable employees. However, monetary reward and secrecy, particularly in the context of enforcement, serves as fruitful ground for public speculation on whistleblowers’ motives.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who see whistleblowers as heroes that put themselves at risk to call out unethical practices and protect others from harm. In films like The Report, The Post and Dark Waters, Hollywood depicts whistleblowers as impassioned heroes standing up to clearly villainous conspiracies. In real life, of course, the experience is much murkier.

Consider Kathe Swanson, the town clerk in Dixon, Ill., who blew the whistle on comptroller Rita Crundwell. Crundwell embezzled US$54 million over more than 20 years to finance her extravagant lifestyle. Accounting professor Kelly Richmond Pope positions Swanson’s actions as heroic, arguing Swanson went public not for fame or financial reward, but because she felt it was the right thing to do.

Holding power to account

Our culture ultimately relies on whistleblowers to hold powerful organizations and individuals accountable.

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners’ 2022 Report to the Nation found that a significant number of fraud cases reported in North America — 42 per cent — were detected as a result of whistleblower tips. More than half of those tips were made by an organization’s own employees.

Whistleblowers play a crucial role in upholding accountability and integrity within our society. We do not, however, make it easy for them.

By supporting the efforts of whistleblowers and recognizing the personal and professional risks they take, we may begin to foster a culture that values transparency, ethical conduct and accountability, strengthening our institutions as a whole.

Thomas Stuart, Lecturer in Communications, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria and Douglas A. Stuart, Assistant Teaching Professor, Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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